Monday, February 25, 2008

Episode I - Lack of the Irish

When Buck Mulligan, Stephen and Haines sit down together for breakfast, an old woman comes in to give them milk for their tea. Joyce refers to this milkwoman in such a way that she becomes representative of Ireland itself. Upon her first entrance, Joyce tells us that “[a]n old woman came forward and stood by Stephen’s elbow,” an “old woman” being a common anthropomorphic representation of Ireland (13). Farther down, while Stephen imagines her collecting the milk she now gives to them, he calls her “Silk of the kine” (best of the cattle), another representation of Ireland, as well as once again calling her a “poor old woman” (14). From examining the woman’s interactions with the three men and the thoughts Stephen has about her, much is revealed about the Ireland Joyce presents in Ulysses.

The milkwoman’s first words upon entering the room are “Glory be to God,” indicating the intense religiosity of the Irish people as followers of Catholicism (13). Buck Mulligan, of course mocks this religious sentiment in the milkwoman and the rest of Ireland by telling Haines that “[t]he islanders… speak frequently of the collector of prepuces [foreskins]” (i.e. God, who demands circumcision as part of his covenant with Abraham) (13). As the woman pours milk for the three men, Stephen describes the contents of the jug as “rich white milk, not hers” and thinks of her “[o]ld shrunken paps” (13). In this description, Ireland is presented as a woman, a mother, or possibly the “Silk of the kine” that must rely on milk from another source, for surely none will flow from her “shrunken paps.” This is just one of many images of an old, decaying Ireland that Joyce depicts throughout the narrative. Stephen also calls her “a witch on he toadstool,” a possible reference to the folkloric tradition of Ireland that Buck has just finished lambasting (13).

After she has finished serving the three, Haines begins to speak in Irish and she asks him, “Is it French you are talking, sir?” (14) Not only does she not know Irish, but she cannot even recognize it when it is spoken and mistakes it for French. “I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows,” she says to the men (14). In this short interaction, Joyce points out the absurd fact that Ireland no longer speaks Irish, the language having been largely usurped by English. Several times throughout the first episode, Joyce asserts the lack of, or gradual disintegration of a true, shared Irish culture. This distinct lack of “Irishness” in the Irish and decay of the culture is apparent in the figure of the milkwoman and the search for these things and a solution to these problems will most likely become a major topic for the rest of the day.

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